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Gairloch in North-West Ross-Shire
Part II.—Inhabitants of Gairloch

Chapter VIII.—Agriculture and Stock


IN the time of the Roman occupation of Great Britain the Highlands were almost destitute of agriculture. That some corn was grown is manifest, from the ancient querns or hand-mills found everywhere. The possessions of the Highlanders then principally consisted of herds of cattle. Tradition says that cheese and butter supplied the place of bread and butter, and that a sort of pudding was made of blood taken from living cattle and mixed with a little meal. These, with meat and milk, formed the diet of the people. When the Highlands became more settled, agriculture increased, more corn was grown, and oatmeal, in some form or other, became a leading article of food.

The cattle of the Highlanders were mostly of the small black kind. Now-a-days there is a mixture of other breeds amongst the crofters' stock, and since the introduction of the black-faced sheep the cattle have become less numerous. The practice of drawing blood from living cattle was universal in the Highlands, even in 1730, when Captain Burt wrote his "Letters," and Pennant noticed the same usage in 1772. In Gairloch the practice continued to the beginning of the nineteenth century, if we may trust the evidence of the old inhabitants. At the east end of "the glen" (the narrow-pass about half way between Gairloch and Poolewe), there is a flat moss called to this day Blar na Fala, or "the bog of the blood," because this was a usual place for the inhabitants to assemble their cattle and take blood from them. At Tournaig also a place is still pointed out where the natives used to bleed the cattle landed here from the Lews. This barbarous mode of obtaining blood as an article of food, affords striking evidence of the miserable poverty of the old days.

There was a pernicious practice much in vogue amongst the small farmers here up to the beginning of the nineteenth century; they let their cows for the season to a person called a "bowman," who engaged to produce for every two cows, one calf, two' stones of butter weighing 24 lbs. English, and four stones of cheese. The calf was generally starved, and during winter the cattle got food sufficient only to-keep them alive.

Before the great sheep-farms were established, the Gairloch people always took their black cattle to the shielings on the hills to feed on the upland pastures. It was generally the younger people who accompanied the cattle ; they went up to the shielings when the spring work of the crofts was finished, about the end of May, and remained to the end of August, when they brought the cattle home again. There is an air of romance about the life at the shielings. Miss Harriet Martineau, in her "Feats of the Fiord," draws a charming picture of the similar life in Norway. But in Gairloch it cannot have been very desirable; the shieling bothies, of which many remains are left, were indeed miserable dwellings. Dr Mackenzie says :—" Well do I remember the dreadful shieling bothies, and I can hardly yet believe that heaps of strong healthy people actually lived and throve in them."

Sir George Steuart Mackenzie, writing in 1810, tells us that the present system of sheep-farming was introduced into Ross-shire by Sir John Lockhart Ross of Balnagown about 1775. Many evictions of smaller tenants took place, and much resistance was aroused. The first sheep-farm in Gairloch was started about 1810 at Letter-ewe, under the management of Mr John M'Intyre, who was much praised by Sir G. S. Mackenzie for his activity and good management, as well as his successful cultivation of the land about his place of residence,—"in every department of inclosing, draining, and management, he evinced judgment and knowledge of the best principles of agriculture."

The commencement of sheep-farming in Gairloch does not seem to have been accompanied by any noticeable friction. If one or two small townships were abolished to make way for the sheep-farmer, the inhabitants had other more desirable quarters provided for them. The population of Gairloch steadily increased from the date when sheep-farming began.

Recently several sheep-farms have been forested for deer, i.e. the sheep have been removed, and to-day the only large sheep-farm is that of Bruachaig above Kenlochewe; but there is a considerable extent of ground the pasturage of which is held by the crofters and by some smaller farmers, all of whom, both crofters and farmers, possess a number of sheep.

Sheep, unlike cattle, cause a rapid deterioration in the quality of the pasturage, so that the number of sheep any particular ground will maintain in health is said to diminish annually, i.e. if it be stocked to its full extent. In Gairloch it generally requires ten acres of hill pasture to support one sheep.

It is certain there were sheep in Gairloch centuries before the black-faced sheep were introduced. The original sheep were of small size, and had pink noses and brownish faces; their coat varied in colour; they were kept in houses at night for protection from wolves, and later on from foxes. This original native breed of sheep is now unknown in Gairloch; some of them are still to be seen in St Kilda. The late laird of Dundonell gave me a description of the St Kilda sheep, which exactly agreed with my own observations. He said they were " of every size, shape, and colour, from a hare to a jackass." In the present day the sheep in Gairloch are of the black-faced and cheviot breeds (with some crosses), probably in almost equal proportions.

There are twenty-seven farms entered in the County Valuation Roll as at present existing in Gairloch. There are sheep on all of them except one, viz., that attached to the Kenlochewe Hotel, which is a purely dairy farm ; all of them have some arable land; several are club farms.

Most of the arable land, however, is cultivated by the crofters. Strictly speaking the present system of crofts in Gairloch dates back only to 1845. Prior to that time the "run-rig" system of cultivation prevailed throughout Gairloch. The small tenants, instead of having crofts as now, held the arable land in common; in many cases an oversman was responsible to the proprietor for the whole rent. The arable land was divided into "rigs," and these were cultivated by the tenantry in rotation, sometimes decided by lot. In Appendix XCIX. to the Report (1885) of the Royal Commission on the Crofters and Cottars, is an interesting description of three varieties of " run-rig," communicated by Mr Alexander Carmichael.

The new system of crofts was established in Gairloch in 1845 and 1846. The Dowager Lady Mackenzie of Gairloch writes:—"Each tenant had a lot or croft of about four acres assigned to him ; houses (of which there had before been usually five or six together) were now placed separately on the new lots; and fevers and epidemics, which formerly had spread so fast, ceased to do so. Money was borrowed from government, and a great deal of draining and trenching was done. The surveying, measuring, planning, and mapping near five hundred crofters' lots was very expensive to the proprietor, Sir Kenneth Mackenzie, and the trouble of having this change effected was very great;. but it has proved of great benefit to the crofters themselves." There are still several small townships where the houses remain in close juxtaposition as under the old run-rig system. "First Coast" and "Second Coast," on the late Mr Bankes's estate, are examples.

The crops raised by the crofters are almost exclusively oats and potatoes; a little barley and some turnips are also grown. Besides their arable land the crofters have the right of grazing cattle and sheep on specified areas of moorland, or "hill" as it is called. The average stock of each crofter in Gairloch is two or three cows, one stirk, and five to ten sheep; a few horses or ponies are also kept. There are now four hundred and forty-two crofters on the Gairloch estate of Sir Kenneth Mackenzie, who pay an average rent, including common pasture, of £3 15s 5d, and have on an average three and a quarter acres of arable land. On the estates of the late Mr Bankes there are one hundred and one crofters, paying an average rent of £5 2s 2d for four and a quarter acres of arable land and the hill pasture. Of course each crofter has a dwelling-house, besides byre and barn, mostly very humble structures. The average number of persons residing on each croft is five. The crofters live in communities called townships, and the "hill" is occupied in common by each township ; a herd boy is usually employed by the township to herd the cattle and sheep.

Few of the crofters have ploughs; they work their crofts by means of the "cas-chrom" (see illustration). A southerner might well be pardoned for disbelieving that such a primitive and ancient instrument should still exist and be used in Great Britain; nevertheless hundreds of cas-chroms may be seen in use within the parish of Gairloch every April and May. The "cas-chrom" is generally, but not universally, condemned; no doubt it is a slow process to turn over a plot with this simple and ungainly-looking implement, but some argue that if properly used it is effective in getting at the sub-soil.

The following extracts from Sir G. S. Mackenzie's "General Survey," and Sir Francis Mackenzie's "Hints," bear on our present subject:— -

Sir G. S. Mackenzie says:—"There are no sources of information from which a precise knowledge of the state of agriculture in the northern counties, previous to the rebellion in 1745,, can be derived; but from what it has been since that time, it may safely be concluded that agricultural knowledge was neither sought for nor desired. The mode of management which has been practised in this county (Ross-shire) and in other parts of the Highlands, and which has been handed down from father to son for many generations, is still to be found in the midst of the most improved districts. We still see the arable land divided into-small crofts, and many of the hills occupied as commons. On the west coast particularly, the ground is seen covered with heaps of stones, and large quantities are collected on the divisions between the fields, so that a considerable portion of the land capable of cultivation is thus rendered useless by the indulgence of the most unpardonable sloth. The management of the native farmers is most destructive. The soil of one field is dug away to be laid upon another; and crop succeeds crop until the land refuses to yield anything. It is then allowed to rest for a season, and the weeds get time to multiply. Such, we must suppose, was the system of farming before the rebellion; we cannot imagine it to have been worse."

Coming to the nineteenth century, Sir G. S. Mackenzie writes as follows of the parish of Gairloch:—"The business of farming is but ill understood; and it certainly is surprising that proprietors,. and the holders of long leases though of old date, should have their land in very bad order, and stock of a quality inferior to that which their ancestors possessed fifty years ago. There are a few exceptions no doubt; but the attachment to ancient customs is nowhere more strongly fixed than in this district. The time, however, has at length arrived when the people must shortly change their habits, or quit the country. The labour which is required for small farms occupies but a small portion of the time of the tenants; but they are so perversely indolent and careless that, while they see people from Inverness and Argyleshires, who in their own counties pay much higher rents, employed in fishing, making kelp, &c, and receiving high wages, none of them can be engaged for such labour. This is the case in general; and although, from my connection with this part of the country, I may have remarked the habits of the people more particularly than elsewhere, yet, from the various testimonies I have received, I can safely assert that the censure of indolence is not applicable to the inhabitants of this. district only."

In another part of his "Survey" Sir George gives the following account of the Highland husbandman of his day:—"Though a singular one, it is" a fact, that every one of the Highlanders, except those who have some connection with the soil, is active and enterprising. If he cannot find employment at home, he travels hundreds of miles to seek it. There are rrot more handy labourers in the world than Highlanders at piece-work. They are not in general neat-handed, but they very soon acquire expertness in any kind of work they engage in. But look attentively to the proceedings of a Highland farmer, and a very different description will be found necessary for his habits. Until he gets his seed sown, he is as active as a man can be. When that business is over, he goes to sleep, until roused by the recollection that he must have some means of keeping himself warm during winter. He then spends a few days in the peat moss, where the women and children are the chief operators. He cuts the peats, and leaves them to be dried and piled up by his family. Whenever the peats have been brought home, another interval presents itself for repose until the corn is ripe. During the winter, unless a good opportunity for smuggling occurs, a Highland farmer has nothing to do but to keep himself warm. He never thinks of labouring his fields during mild weather, or of collecting manure during frost; nothing rouses him but the genial warmth of spring. I cannot reckon how often I have seen Highland farmers basking in the sun on a fine summer day, in all the comforts of idleness. I have asked them, when I found them in such a situation, why they were not busy hoeing their potatoes. "O! the women and bairns do that," was the answer. I would then ask why they did not remove the heaps of stones which I saw on their fields, or conduct away the water which rested on them. They would answer, that they did not know where to put them ; or, that they did no harm; or, that they had been there so long that it was not worth while to stir them; and that water gave sap to the land ; with many other answers equally absurd, and dictated by nothing but what must be considered constitutional sloth. During his leisure hours a Highland farmer will do nothing for himself; but hire him to work, and he will become as brisk as a bee. He will never go to seek work; it must be brought to him. There are many, however, who will absolutely refuse to work at all."

The ensuing quotations from the "Hints" of Sir Francis Mackenzie, published in 1838, shew that the Gairloch people had not progressed much in the quarter of a century which had elapsed since Sir G. S. Mackenzie had written. Sir Francis states, "that hardly one field in your parish has ever had a mattock applied to it for the purpose of giving a little greater depth of soil, although you are constantly grumbling about its poverty and thinness; nor, till within the last five years, has any tenant in Gairloch ever trenched a single rood of land properly; whilst even at this day there are not half-a-dozen who have performed this Herculean task, which just occupies a good labourer in any other country from eight to ten hours, even where this operation is most difficult."

Under the head of manures, Sir Francis writes:—"Though so much depends both on the quantity and quality of your manure, nothing can be worse than your present system. Your dung-hill is generally placed immediately in front of your house door, raised like a mound,, so that all the sap and moisture flows away ; while filth of every kind may be seen wasted around, which, if thrown together, would materially enlarge and enrich the heap. Instead of little daily attentions to increase the manure by every means in your power, you delay everything till the spring, when all is hurry and confusion, contending for sea-ware, and waiting for low tides, at the very time when your dung should be ready on the spot and your seed committed to the ground."

Referring to the "cas-chrom," Sir Francis remarks:—"The present mode of scratching your soil with the cas-chrom ought totally to be abolished; for though you may shovel over a greater surface with it than with the spade, it does not go to such a depth in the soil as to loosen it sufficiently and allow the roots of the various crops to seek for nourishment. By turning the soil over to one side only, it raises the ridges unequally; and whilst one half has a greater depth than necessary, the other is robbed till it becomes almost unproductive. I repeat, that your antique instrument is totally inadequate for cultivating your lands properly; its very name, 'crooked foot/ implies deformity; and it should only be retained as an object of curiosity for posterity, since it is a relic of that barbarism which, I rejoice to think, is fast vanishing."

Sir Francis strongly urges the advantage of industry, which he seems to have considered to be the principal want of the people-Sir Francis says:—"I had an admirable opportunity of illustrating this lately when walking with a small tenant, who, with both hands in his pockets, vehemently complained of the limited extent of his arable land, the poverty of the unreclaimed part, the barrenness of his cattle; in short, he found fault with everything. We were at that moment passing some land which he himself and his forefathers once possessed, but which had lately been given to a clergyman, who was anxious to set a moral as well as a spiritual example to his flock, and who was rapidly and successfully reclaiming the waste and improving the hitherto ill cultivated lands. 'Donald,' I asked, 'look at the improvement your parson is making on that land. Why not imitate his exertions?' 'Ah,' was the reply, 'well may he do all that, since the fine subject is sure to repay him!' 'And why' I said, 'did not you or your forefathers discover this, and do something during the last century it was in their possession,—all which time it remained a barren moor? Would it not have repaid your father fifty years ago, or yourself last year, as well as it promises to remunerate the minister this season?' Donald scratched his head, but could not reply; he was for once convinced of his indolence, though I fear it is hardly yet cured. I fear that Donald still prefers a lounge on the banks of the Ewe, or a saunter in the direction of the inn in hopes of the friendly offer of a dram, to taking up his spade and opening a passage between his lazy beds for the water to escape, or gathering only a few barrowfuls of gravel from his immediate neighbourhood to throw upon his moss, or doing any little thing to make his home neat, his house clean, and himself happy and comfortable. His new farm is now what the glebe was under his reign and that of his forefathers. Thus it is with those who are naturally indolent."

Sir Francis strongly recommends gardens. He says:—"Half a century ago no more than two or three gardens, I believe, existed in your whole parish, one of the most extensive in Britain; and even now, when civilization has been making rapid strides elsewhere, the number of spots where fruits are raised and flowers cultivated has not increased to perhaps a dozen." There are still, as previously remarked, few gardens attached to the crofters' dwellings in Gairloch, and vegetables, other than potatoes, are but little grown. The potato is said not to have become common in Gairloch until the end of the eighteenth century: there is no account of its introduction into the parish. It is stated by the old folk, that when first grown the tubers were hung in nets from the rafters of the roofs to be kept dry, exactly as is often done with onions. The potato disease was unknown in Gairloch until 1846. Now it frequently appears, and -causes great loss; but in some seasons there is little of it, and years have been known when potatoes were pretty largely exported.


 


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